Like Vito Corleone, the fictional Godfather mafia don who claimed to be a humble olive oil importer, captured drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has told prosecutors that he’s a simple farmer, does not have an email account, makes about $18,000 a year and has no ties to drug traffickers.
That’s far different from the image offered by a former army commando who served as Guzman’s bodyguard in the Sinaloa Cartel and was captured with him a little more than a month ago.
That bodyguard, Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez, who goes by the nickname El Condor, said he and Guzman spent most of the last three years inside the city of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, using tunnels and drainage ditches to move between five safe houses.
Guzman always had two planes on standby with pilots ready to fly him anywhere, and switched Blackberry cellphones every week, Hoo Ramirez said.
He also said Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which has been cast as one of the world’s biggest crime organizations, was fraught with internal friction and was fighting against rivals even on its own turf in northwest Mexico.
Nearly five weeks after Guzman’s capture in an oceanfront condominium in Mazatlan on the Sea of Cortez, it is not yet clear how harmed the Sinaloa Cartel has been by his arrest. Guzman is now in the maximum-security Almoloya de Juarez prison on the outskirts of Mexico City.
U.S. government officials, speaking about counternarcotics operations on condition of anonymity because of their sensitive nature, said the arrest of Guzman by Mexican naval commandos working with U.S. intelligence in February was only the latest of many raids that had hurt the Sinaloa Cartel.
“Based upon what we’re seeing, in general, they’re having to realign and reassess how they are going to continue to operate,” one official said. “It’s still uncertain how it’s going to play out.”
Guzman, who told prosecutors he is 56, offered no window into the cartel’s operations when interrogated following his arrest. Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper published reports this week based on federal Attorney General’s Office summaries of the interrogation. They show Guzman sticking to his story of innocence, despite having escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001.
“I’m a farmer,” Guzman told investigators when asked his profession, Excelsior reported Wednesday. He said he grew corn, beans and sorghum, and that his earnings were modest. He said he had a primary school education, was married three times, does not use email, drinks rarely and has no tattoos on his body.
“I don’t belong to any cartel or have any cartel,” he reportedly said.
Far more information is coming from Hoo Ramirez, who also served as Guzman’s personal secretary. Guzman had a preference for former Mexican special forces commandos as aides.
Aside from detailing how he and Guzman used tunnels and drainage ditches to move without detection, Hoo Ramirez said the two men went to a ranch last year to meet with Rafael Caro Quintero, a Guadalajara drug lord whose lawyers had just arranged his freedom after 28 years in prison. Caro Quintero nurtured Guzman in the narcotics trade decades ago, though he is more infamous to American officials as the man who ordered the 1985 kidnapping and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena.
Hoo Ramirez also detailed the Sinaloa Cartel’s smuggling routes into the United States.
“The way the organization sends marijuana to the U.S. is via Nogales (in) Sonora,” the report cites him as saying. “The drugs depart from Culiacan, embarking on a train and sent via Cananea to Nogales on the border with Arizona.”
Cocaine arrives from Guayaquil, the major port in Ecuador. Airplanes bringing the narcotics refuel in Chiapas state in the south of Mexico or in Jalisco state, then fly on to Culiacan in Sinaloa, Hoo Ramirez reportedly told interrogators. Some drugs are also shipped through Baja California and through Tijuana, on the California border, he said.
Two of Guzman’s many offspring, Alfredo and Ivan, are involved in marijuana smuggling, the report cited him saying.
A fellow former commando, known only as El Negro Bravo, who Hoo Ramirez said he met in special forces training, controls the port of Mazatlan for the Sinaloa Cartel and is allied with the two Guzman sons.
Hoo Ramirez cited friction between Negro Bravo and an alleged consigliore of Guzman, Damaso Lopez Nunez, a lawyer and former judicial agent who some see as a potential leader of the cartel. Lopez’s son, Damaso Lopez Serrano, who goes by the nickname El Mini Lic, has touted himself on social media as an up-and-coming narco.
As frictions surge within the syndicate, Hoo Ramirez noted that rivals of Guzman have put down roots in parts of Sinaloa state. One, Fausto Isidro Meza Angulo, 50, nicknamed El Chapo Isidro, controls turf in the Sinaloan city of Guasave. The remnants of the Ciudad Juarez-based Vicente Carrillo Fuentes clan occupy the area around Navolato in the central part of the state.
The U.S. official said the Sinaloa Cartel had suffered several reverses in recent months, including the killing of Gonzalo Inzunza, known as Macho Prieto, on Dec. 18 in Puerto Penasco, a beach resort near Arizona on the Sea of Cortez.
“He was one of the key lieutenant-level leaders, controlling Sonora and cross-border activities”, the official said.
Another notable arrest took place Nov. 20, this one of Serafin Zambada, the 23-year-old son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a co-leader of the cartel with Guzman. Serafin Zambada, a U.S. citizen, was arrested at the Nogales border crossing and is being held awaiting trial in San Diego on one count of conspiracy to import methamphetamine and cocaine.
Hoo Ramirez said the senior Zambada, who remains at large, would be key to ensuring that internecine strife doesn’t worsen in the cartel.
While the fate of the Sinaloa Cartel is still uncertain, the U.S. official highlighted how a series of arrests and killings had unraveled Los Zetas, another crime syndicate that became infamous for its brutal beheadings. The arrests have gone beyond first- and second-tier leaders to accountants and logisticians.
Still, cartels that have been hit hard with arrests or killings of top leaders never seem to get fully dismantled.
“All those classic cartels continue to exist,” the official said. “They continue to maintain significant involvement in criminal activity.”